Gettin’ My Poe On

The Following

The creepy new series, “The Following,” has achieved something noble for television, at least for me. It inspired me to return to the works of Edgar Allen Poe. Admittedly in the last couple of episodes, good old Poe has taken a back seat to the shenanigans of the cult-type group carrying out the macabre plans of the convicted serial killer, Joe Carroll. Nonetheless, in the earlier episodes, all of the characters made references to Poe’s stories, so I thought I’d return to the Tales of Terror and remind myself of what Poe created during his tortured existence.

I was disappointed that the audiobook was not narrated by James Purefoy (who plays the serial killer on “The Following”). I mean, obviously, I knew it wouldn’t be him, but wouldn’t it have been fantastic if it was? He’s pretty cute for a serial killer, right? And that accent…At any rate, you can imagine my surprise to hear a narrator with a decidedly southern gentleman’s lilt. Despite the unexpected accent, I was engaged by the very first story, the well-known Tell-Tale Heart. I’d sort of remembered the story, but what I’d forgotten over the years was the manner by which Poe builds toward the inevitable conclusion.

Recently on the interwebs, I saw this quote attributed to Poe:
“A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.”

Boy oh boy, does our man Poe follow his own advice. By the end of the story, I was practically begging the narrator to just rip up the darn floorboards, confess and maybe even commit hari-kari to stop the infernal beating of the heart.

Another nugget of wisdom I read within the last month was in this post in the New York Times by suspense writer Lee Child. Child says he’s often asked how one creates suspense in stories and he notes that the framing of the questions suggests a sort of if-then construction akin to asking “How do you bake a cake?” This construction, he says, directs writers to look at their ingredients: sympathetic characters and proceed to follow directions on how to place them in impossible situations But, Child says this:

“‘How do you bake a cake?” has the wrong structure. It’s too indirect. The right structure and the right question is: “How do you make your family hungry?”

And the answer is: You make them wait four hours for dinner.”

Don’t you love that? You make them wait four hours for dinner. As I work through the final revisions of my current work-in-progress, I’m thinking about the promises I’ve set forth in the beginning of the novel, what Orson Scott Card would call the need in the reader. I’m looking at the characters, the choices they make and their impact on one another, and I’m looking at how I’m building suspense toward an exciting climax and a satisfying conclusion. Now you might be wondering if I’m writing a suspense thriller like Lee Child. I’m not. I’m writing a realistic young adult novel set in contemporary Baltimore. But the point Child raises pertains to all writers, in my opinion. It’s a matter of how we make readers turn pages. We all need suspense in our stories. In The Tell-Tale Heart, Poe forces the reader wait during the long hours that the narrator is just watching the old man. Poe creates a need in the reader to see what not only what will happen but how it will happen. “The Following” encourages us to tune in each week to find out if and when the ever-flawed Ryan Hardy will find the boy, whether or not the mother will get herself in trouble (is she a cliche of a damsel in distress or what?) and whether that ‘virgin’ acolyte will ever be bring himself to commit murder (his psycho friends won’t give up on him, how cute is that?).

Impatient by nature, I have a tendency to throw an obstacle before my main character and then allow her to leap over it fairly quickly. Through this revision, I’m learning to slow down, allow my character to wallow in discomfort for a while and force my readers to wait four hours for dinner. What are your thoughts about suspense in stories? What have you seen or read that creates excellent suspense, in your opinion?

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